Among the Meep by Robert Pope
I did not know Margaret before we arrived against our wills, totally in the dark. We tumbled out, then sat up and evaluated each other a moment before we heard movement in the undergrowth, followed by the face of a strange man peering through the green and purple foliage—black hair, streaked with white, and those pale blue eyes jumping from one to the other of us. He must have thought quite a while what to say, appealing to our desire for restoration of a sense of normalcy.
“The plane is this way,” he said. “If you’ll follow me, we can try to get out of this God forsaken place.”
Nothing truly made sense, but, nevertheless, we both stood, Margaret carrying a pair of high heel shoes, and squeezed through the underbrush behind this slender fellow in loose safari clothing, a sidearm and hunting knife strapped to either hip. He lacked only the pith helmet to complete the image of the British colonizer. He rattled what I know now as nonsense along the way: “My pilot died tragically in the crash landing, right through the windshield. I do have some rudimentary knowledge of flying, map and compass. I’m sure I can get the little craft on course with the help of even a novice navigator.”
The sun had come up, light spreading through trees and undergrowth. Any remaining chill of darkness fled; the jungle about us commenced steaming. We were quite hot, sweating when we passed through a wide clearing where the sun beat down with a particular fury. The air wavered with the heat. Our guide mopped his neck with a soiled handkerchief and displaced the silence by telling us, “I worked all day yesterday as well as the day before putting this thing back together. And the day before that I’m afraid.”
Margaret inquired how far we had yet to go in this heat. “Not much further,” he said. He stopped and turned to us. “I hate to say this but there won’t be room for three of us on the plane. One of you will stay behind. Once we find our way out I’ll come back for the other.”
Margaret and I looked at each other. It was obvious I should remain behind, but Margaret volunteered right away. The stranger gave me a steely stare, from which I concluded that he too assumed I should remain behind rather than Margaret.
“No, no,” I said. “Of course, I will remain behind.”
“I will leave a rifle with you,” he quickly asserted, “for self-defense.”
“What nonsense,” Margaret said. “I am quite adept at wilderness survival and will remain behind. I am something of a marksman, no doubt a better shot than this fellow.”
“This arrangement is unacceptable,” said the stranger. “I must insist you remain behind.”
Here he looked pointedly at me.
“I am in complete agreement,” I said, underscoring the point by removing my tie.
“But I am not.” Margaret dropped her heels to the ground and let it be known that on this point she would stand her ground. The stranger drew his pistol, for all the world like an old six shooter. “It should be clear that survival is the issue in our present environment. I will take the lady to civilization and return for you.”
“I won’t go,” Margaret insisted. “You’ll have to shoot me with that ridiculous pistol if you continue to insist.”
She took a few steps toward him, and I watched with fascination as she set her hand on top of the one holding the pistol. “I think we both know, if there is indeed a plane ahead, either you have not been working on it or it will not fly, as you have neither grease nor oil on your soft hands.”
“I am warning you.”
“Since I will do no good for you dead, I assume you meant to shoot him,” and here she pointed at me, “maim him or tie him up, and take me off for what you are craving.”
He glanced down at the hand she inserted in his shirt. She extended her tongue in a most insinuating manner, and then, in an instant, he lay on the ground, her bare foot on his throat, the tip of the barrel of his own pistol pressed to his forehead. When the explosion came, the bloody stub of his head opened as if it had burst from inside.
We found his camp near a river, the tent roomy enough to contain camp table and chairs, a wide cot, a lamp run off batteries, and an assortment of books and papers. Also, a large metal box that from time to time emitted chirping sounds in apparent attempt to communicate with our former guide. His camp was well stocked, as if he had just arrived or received a delivery. Three pairs of women’s shoes lined up against a large trunk gave me pause.
Like Goldilocks, Peggy tried all three, one too large, one too small, the third just right, each pair sturdy enough for the serious work of survival. In the trunk she discovered a trove of clothing from which she furnished a wardrobe of safari style to match those I had taken from our guide. Outfitted with one of the rifles, she led us out to explore our new home. Though we found no evidence of a plane, we did discover what amounted to a boneyard—a clearing scattered wth bones, hair, and such.
A man has to eat, no surprises there, but these bones—of brown and yellow and white, baking and baked in the sun—presented an all too recognizable aspect, indicated by the presence of human or human-like skulls broken at crown and temple. The absence of an offensive smell spoke to the heat of the noonday sun and the marvelous influence of the air. “It appears,” I told her, “that you have done us a real service blowing that fellow’s head off.”
My eyes are as blue as our guide’s, hers golden brown and almond in shape. We looked at each other several minutes, recognizing racial differences in our appearance. How we came to this particular pass, neither knew, but we stood together over the shambles, a gathering of bloody bones, understanding how much we now depended on each other.
Our discussion turned to the discovery of other creatures, arriving at a decision to check the narrow river for fish or other aquatic life. Thus, we went back to camp to study the pellucid water of a river with only minor rills on the surface though it rushed at quite a pace. At first the only life we could ascertain came in the form of extremely large tadpoles. We took off footwear and dangled our toes in the river. Because it was so hellishly hot, the cool water came as a balm to the soul, and I said so, which made Peggy laugh.
But then, the expression on her face made me look around. The wings were translucent, with purple veins running through, blending with the background green. I had read of prehistoric varieties with a wingspan as much as four or five feet, but this dragonfly measured greater than six, hovering a moment before flitting to the opposite bank of the river with a great thrumming which fell silent as it hovered again. It dipped down and touched water, rose and dipped again.
I had not noticed that Peggy had shed her clothes until she waded in the river. She ducked under and came up smoothing back her dark, now sparkling hair. I watched her a moment before I too shed my clothes. I left the knife on the bank in case I should need it quickly.
The crowd of tadpoles gathered around made us laugh at their wriggling antics. It was at this point I saw an enormous frog across the river, sitting impassively. I mentioned the tadpoles were large, but to approximate the size of this green and purple spotted creature, I would have to compare it in height to a large horse, in girth to the hippopotamus.
Needless to say, we hurried from the water for fear this thing might jump in with us. We lay on shore, hearts pumping fast and hard. Two more huge frogs appeared at the side of the first and set up a horrible croaking. It took a while to become convinced they took no notice of us, but they provided a moment of horror when one shot out its long, purple tongue to wrap around one of the dragonflies. The wings crackled and buckled on their way into its mouth.
We forced ourselves to eat some dried meat that proved less chewy than I feared, perhaps due to the heat of the afternoon. We sat under the tarp at the tent entrance, sipping tea. Every-once-in-a- while we heard the chirping box in the tent. Only a few hours of sunlight remained, so we set out in the direction we had come this morning, skirting the clearing where our former guide baked in his underwear, his blunt and bloodied head rammed in the soil.
We traced the way we had first come until we found the thicket where our journey began, alarmed that dusk arrived sooner than expected. I looked up to see the large shadow that had her attention: a wide, gray circular shape that stood on tripod legs coming down through the trees. I located the metal container, like the claw of some earthbound crane, from which we had dropped to the jungle floor, at the end of a retractable arm.
At this point, Peggy and I hurried back to the tent, shivering in the cold of the evening, looking about for what hid in the night. We zipped ourselves in the tent, wakeful and agitated. Throughout the night we remained vigilant. If Peggy slept in the wide cot in which our former guide once slept, I stayed awake, pistol at the ready. Occasionally the metal box chirped, and I heard sounds in the night but could not make out any of them and could not be sure they were not the products of enlivened imagination.
When we woke next morning, I felt clear-headed, pleased with myself until the chirping started up with greater frequency as we took our cup of tea. We tried to ignore the communicator until it worried at us that whoever chirped at our former guide might decide to pay an unwanted visit.
The thing possessed surprising weight. We carried it precariously between us, stepping sideways through the brush until we reached river’s edge. Once we had found the deepest spot, it sank swiftly to the pebbly bottom, chirping another five minutes, sending up a stream of bubbles until it ceased. Having disposed of the communicator, we feared some chirping might be going on in the craft that dropped us off the previous morning. We easily found our way through the beaten down flora, though I could see it had begun restoring its former growth. We passed our former guide in the position we left him, his skin darkened and drawn back from eyeballs and teeth. Thankfully, he did not have the fetid smell of the dead.
When we reached the immense tripod legs, an energetic wide-leafed vine encircled them, creating an effective ladder for our journey upward, hampered only by the long ax Peggy carried and the blunt force instrument under my belt. I felt like Jack of the beanstalk as we climbed stout vines, holding on overhead with occasional dips and snapping offshoots that gave a scare. These vines ended close enough to reach the hatch from which a crane arm descended to the metal box in which we had been lowered.
I calmed my shaking arms, and, climbing as quickly as I could, clambered into the hatch, to lay a moment before crawling forward to allow the entrance of Peggy. Our breathing echoed in the dark. I could see nothing, not even my hand before me. I feared we would have a hard time feeling our way until a beam of light pierced through above me. It gave me a start until I realized Peggy brought the flashlight.
At last, we both stood and searched the cavity until we found the metal ladder into a second hatch above, which I opened with my shoulders. In the heart of the craft I could barely stand, but light poured in from windows above so we could clearly see the circular interior and an array of levers, gears, and switches. I took the mallet from my belt, wondering where to begin, when we heard chirping from a central area of the panel. Peggy attacked it with her ax until the guts of the thing sprung back, striking her forehead. She fell back, and in that terrible moment I saw blood on her forehead. “Peggy,” I called, “are you all right?”
She glared at me before she leapt back at the panel and began slashing. I joined at another vulnerable port and soon had the wreckage at my feet, the only sound our own heavy breathing. We looked at each other and began to laugh. I slid the mallet in my belt and she sheathed the ax head in the holster on hers. “Now,” she said, “how do we get down?”
Fortunately, we found the elevator that went down through the widest of the three legs to the jungle floor. Though we had just rendered it thoroughly inoperable, we managed to repel by holding the braided cable, literally walking down the leg.
Sweaty, filthy, nearly inexplicable blood on our hands and face, all we could think of was getting back to the river. When we once more passed the even drier corpse of our guide, I vowed to return to bury him. But, having conceived of relief in the river, we raced the rest of the way.
Discarding clothes as quickly as possible, we plunged in and swam about with eyes open. Clarity underwater was, if anything, greater than on the land. The tadpoles were noticeably more mature than the day before. We caught sight of a long, thick fish-type creature passing along the other side of the river. It had three nodules, bumps you might call them, on its side, where a wide purple stripe went from the head to the split or forked tail which whipped about in what looked like a circular motion. It seemed to watch us with doleful, bulbous eyes. We attempted to follow, but it wriggled its body once and shot far out of sight.
As we treaded water, Peggy noticed the communicator did not seem to be where we left it. We dressed and hurried back to the safety of camp. To our shock, the communicator sat beside our camp chairs, dripping water.
As afternoon progressed, I decided it was time I go back and do my duty to the dead man, a task for which Peggy had no stomach. I set out with pick, shovel, canvas tarp, and a thermos of water. When I stood beside him, the smell of his body was as the scent of museums. He was less a man now than a desiccated artifact of this monstrous world.
I spread the tarp beside the body and attempted to swing the shoulders onto it when the head rolled against my legs, rocking a moment before it stilled. The shoulders lay at an angle on the tarp, so I took the legs at the calf area and swung them onto the tarp. Unfortunately, the body broke at the waist. Once I got all the parts gathered in the middle, I drew the corners of the tarp together and carried it on my back. Slick with sweat, I arrived at the shambles to unfurl my load onto the pile he no doubt had a hand in accumulating.
I leaned against a green and purple thing I called a tree, possessed of the living scent of decay. I began to notice many but not all of the bones had a human aspect; others were thinner, frailer. My first thought was these were the bones of children, but they had a lacy appearance. I handled a few of the lighter bones, breaking them easily.
That’s when I saw the green lizard, its long, yellow tongue flickering, testing and tasting the air. It rose from a pile of bones and descended again, only to rise further on. When it came to the head of our guide, bumping its active tongue through an eyehole, it found what remained of the moist brains.
That evening, I didn’t feel like talking, and neither did she, so we sat by a low fire until it grew dark, our weapons on our knees, the night bright with stars. A high moon was at half—only the bottom half visible—and a lower moon at full. “I saw a bird,” she said, “when I went to answer the call of nature. Squatting on the hole I dug, I saw a tall bird hopping through the trees.”
“Brown, I think, and purple.”
“It would be worth knowing more of this bird.”
She looked serious then and stood up, her rifle at the ready.
“What is it?” I whispered, standing beside her.
Though the moons gave some dim light, we could barely see trees and bushes in the odd shadows. It was as if the shadows had taken shape low in the trees, moving toward us, stepping into the moonlight. Twenty or twenty-five creatures half our size stood before us, their arms at their sides somewhat darker than their bodies. The moonlight made their skin look wet. They kept coming toward us until they stopped in a body no more than ten yards away. One of them spoke clearly, saying, “Meep.” A few others took up the sound, then silence.
Peggy returned the sound. “Meep,” she said, confirming the shape of the sound. It now occurred to me they might be telling us the name of their planet. I kneeled, placed one hand on the ground, and said, “Meep?”
At first, the creatures stiffened, but they seemed to take great interest in my gesture. The one in front kneeled also, though I could not be certain they had knees at the moment. One of his dark arms went out and touched the ground as well. “Cang,” he said.
“Cang,” I repeated.
All of them repeated the sound and got down in a position I call kneeling. Peggy kneeled beside me and said, “Cang.” Then she leaned forward in a posture that alarmed me, touching her forehead to the ground. To lend support, I followed her example.
When we looked up again, the host before us returned the gesture.
The front fellow raised his mouth hole high and gave a long ululation that echoed back through the throng as they all followed suit. When at last they fell silent, in order to respond, I sang to them: “Row, row, row your boat.” Peggy came in on third row, completing the round: “Gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
Peggy finished after I did and the creatures set up a horrifying din. “Is that applause,” she wondered aloud, “or laughter?”
The creatures fell silent as we started again. Once more, when we finished, the throng set up the hideous din. We went through the process eight or nine times at what we presumed was their request. The lead fellow moved toward us, causing me no small apprehension, stopping so close I got a whiff of his scent: parsley.
The series of noises he then emitted had the sound of an explanation, as he touched the silent communicator several times. It occurred to me he was telling us they had found this thing in the river and delivered it to our camp. This much closer, I had opportunity to scrutinize him in detail, realizing this was none other than the fish-creature we had seen swimming past us.
When Peggy said, “I’m sorry if we left it in a place you didn’t want it left,” the fellow fell silent, taking his opportunity to study us. After a moment of silence, to our astonishment, he sang the tune of “Row, row, row your boat” back to us with weird, discordant sounds replacing words. When we applauded, he backed away a bit, so we stopped just in time to hear the entire gang join in on their version of the song. Still warbling, the beings turned as one, a leader now at the rear, and made their way back to jungle, leaving us with the abiding scent of parsley.
Next day, I took notebook and pencils, heading into deep forest to expand the knowledge of our surroundings and find Peggy’s bird. As I wandered, I considered how far from home I had come. I remembered with fondness the little house in which I grew up, my dear mother, my wonderful, fuddled father forever tinkering in his backyard laboratory. As I recalled them, I saw them before me, mother in her cat eye glasses, reddish hair standing straight up in great loops and curls, her red-painted mouth—and then, in a flash, I saw my mother before me.
It took a moment for me to comprehend I had come face to face with the bird of which Peggy spoke, its head titled downwards, looking down its long beak at me with great eyes. The transformation of the image of my mother into the bird sent a shock through my system, and a jolt of adrenalin made me reach out and grab it by the neck. In no time, I had a wild screeching monster in my hands, the trapped bird beating me with its considerable wings.
“For the love of God,” I shouted, “calm down.”
The bird fled through underbrush, screeching as it went, and I ran haphazardly through jungle, gasping for air. I could barely see sunlight through the canopy overhead. For a moment, I feared I might never find my way back until I heard the running water of the river. I came to its edge and followed in the bright sun for an hour or so, until I came upon a gorge, around which I saw the Meep lounging and reclining and carrying on their conversations with each other.
Though I had never been so relieved to see anyone, this did not appear to be mutual, as all the Meep leaped into the river. At least a dozen of them swam about among underwater caves and rocky structures like otters. I sat on the bank, my legs crossed, taking some pleasure in their company, even if they remained in the water.
My spirits had lifted when I thought of the pleasure I would have showing this to Peggy. One of the Meep came out of the water, waddled close, and bowed his head to the ground. I too bowed and touched my forehead to the ground.
A friend joined him, and they seemed a bit like friendly penguins as they mimicked the tune of “Row, row, row your boat” in that mildly horrifying voice of theirs. I applauded softly, not to startle them, and sang it back. Soon a group of six or seven joined them, before they lost interest and leaped back in the water.
Nothing now seemed amiss as I followed the river until I arrived at a smaller gorge where a larger creature swam, my own dear Peggy. She had her back to me, treading water as I said her name. She rotated until she saw me. “Did you find my bird?” she called.
“Indeed, I did!”
She swam closer, looking up at me with pure joy that I had returned.
“I also found the place where the Meep make their home,” I told her
That last bit of news excited her. She had taken a fancy to the Meep. I took off my shoes and jumped in with clothes on, which Peggy found terribly funny. “They needed a good wash as well,” I said. Then, I climbed out, laid my clothes to dry, and when I turned to leap in, saw them coming through the water. They must have followed me.
I stood naked on the shore—so trusting had I become of our environment—and watched the joy on Peggy’s face turn to horror. She screamed as the Meep tore at her from all sides, biting chunks of flesh from bone with a frantic action and a sound that haunts me. Her expression went from horror to dismay, to blankness, to nothing. In minutes, they reduced her to skeleton. Bits of flesh and drifting blood were scooped or sucked down the gullets of the wretched creatures.
I had been frozen in place, only to witness a second horror. Several Meep crawled out of the gorge as those in the water nudged her bones to the bank. These others collected and carried them to the shambles, where marrow would be sucked from bone by lizards. I cannot adequately express the depression into which I fell. She had made the prospect of a lifetime on an unknown planet less full of dread than hope. It took another week to make up my mind to perish as Peggy had, with one leap into the waters of Cang, at the gorge where I found them, leaving behind this testament of our sojourn. You who read this know as much as I can tell from experience.
If you should look for me, seek me in the shambles, among the Meep.
About the Author: Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.